A one-two punch post:
Truth in Storytelling
So, to me, storytelling is in everything. Our lives are stories. Dancing, cooking, painting, legoes, books, houses, work: all storytelling. The very universe we live in is part of the greatest story that has ever been told, really, I suppose, the only story, the story.
My goal in life then is to make sure that my part of it, my chapter I suppose, or more realisitically, paragraph, sentence or even single little word, is a good one. As I write and grow and live, I’ve had to think about what exactly that means. Why do we write or tell stories at all and why, more specifically, do we write the ones we do? After a great deal of consideration, I’ve come up with these thoughts.
- All writing teaches.
- All writing should reveal truth.
Technically speaking, I think all writing does reveal truth, in a way, though not necessarily in the way I mean when I say that. So to avoid any misunderstanding, let’s unpack these a little. Oh, and for this post, I am going to use writing and storytelling somewhat interchangeably as I believe this applies to storytelling in general, but am trying to apply it specifically to my own writing.
All Writing Teaches
If you’re reading the label on a can of beans, you’re learning something. If you’re reading a letter or memoir or book, you’re learning. It doesn’t have to be an instructional book necessarily. Maybe all you’re learning is the story itself. Regardless, I think every time you read something (or hear or see it in the case of plays, movies, audiobooks, podcasts, etc.), you are learning something. I suppose this is true of every time you use your senses in any way, but seeing as I view cooking or metal working or anything else you do as a form of storytelling as well, that rather makes sense. Regardless, sticking to the point, storytelling teaches.
All Writing Should Reveal Truth
If you’re reading the label on a can of beans, and it says carrots, but you know for a fact that there are beans inside, you’re learning that the label is wrong. Either it’s the wrong label or the person who wrote it wanted to deceive you or they themselves earnestly thought there were carrots inside and were simply mistaken. Regardless of that or any other some such happenstance, you’ve learned something. In the same way, I think storytelling is meant to reveal truth. It may be hidden behind an unreliable narrator or because I’m trying to sneak a reveal up on you or because honestly, I as a human am an unreliable narrator myself, but at its core, I think that storytelling is meant to show things that are true.
This has honestly been a bit of a struggle for me because for a long time I always wanted my writing to have some deep, profound message or question you found or asked at the end, a big truth, as it were or at least something that made you want to look for one. I wanted something big, was afraid of telling untruths, and didn’t respect little truths as much as I should.
I struggled with it in reading too. It has taken me a long, long time to get into short stories, both as a reader and as writer, and part of that was because there were so many stories that didn’t seem to have a meaning. There was no big question, there was no big moral, and often times, they were just about something that happened to somebody on a slightly beyond normal day. Reading stories outside of my genres of choice (sci-fi, young adult, fantasy) in particular were difficult for me. Why should I care what little thing happened to Joe Schmoe on October 22nd, 1982? Why should these things matter?
But that’s the beauty of storytelling, as well as the teller’s burden. You see, when that author writes that story about Joe Schmoe, there’s an opportunity, and I believe responsibility, for that author to speak truth. When I write about Rick or Cog or anyone else in my books, I’m their window. They live in me and if I do not represent them and their world accurately to the best of my ability, in their actions, in describing their world, in everything else, the best my readers will get is a skewed understanding, a portrait of wax that’s been left out in the sun. My characters (well, everyone really, fiction or no) have something to share, a story to tell, and in the case of those under my literary care, I am the only voice by which their message can reach the world. People are always so terrified of being forgotten on this planet. They don’t want to be put down as a traitor when they were a martyr, don’t want to be lost to memory by the time their grandkids are 10. For us, as people, that’s often why we do what we do, why we strive for success and fame and fortune and network and speak and connect. It’s often why we tell the stories we do, because we don’t want our chapter, paragraph, sentence, word to be forgotten or missed. We want it to be a good one. This gets tricky of course based on your understanding of “good” but that’s rather a different post and, honestly, a core part of what stories you’ll tell anyway.
Anyway, for the author, painter, or storyteller of any kind working in fiction, this idea is what makes our responsibility so grave (and exciting). Because when a character lives in you, you are the only window. The only way for their word to be told. There are no other viewers, stats, research or anything else to inform your reader (fan-fic aside, but that of course can only come afterwards of course). It’s just you telling the world what you know, sharing those people the best you can. That’s what makes editing, practicing and so on important, because you are trying to tell the truth. Even if Rick and Cog live nowhere else besides inside me, that doesn’t mean that I am not responsible to them–and my reader–(if anything I am therefore more responsible) to represent them as accurately and truthfully as I can. Even if that means representing them through the skewed understanding of Rick’s point of view for the sake of revealing the truth of how Rick thinks. That’s what validates the unreliable narrator.
This idea of truth in storytelling extends not to just telling the truth about characters, but to speaking truths in general. This train of thought first developed in me during my AP Comp class in high school–one of if not the best class I have ever taken, while reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which I highly, highly, highly recommend (fair warning, there is some graphic, gruesome stuff in it, given its subject matter, the Vietnam war). In his story (chapter?) titled “How to Tell a True War Story” there is one line in particular that has always stuck with me. “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”1 Honestly that story, besides that line, has been one of the most impactful things I’ve ever read, and though I don’t believe I’m in a place to speak much on the subject of war myself, I do think the idea holds true in what I do know and write about. It’s the same reason we tell parables, fables and fairy tales or the same reason we use symbolism. It’s why classics become classics. Because even if our firemen don’t burn books and there isn’t a magical land inside our closet, we can recognize truth in the pages. This is why I write. To tell those truths through my life and through the lives and discoveries of those inside me.
It is a tricky thing, because you have to remember that a truth that is significant or even trivial to Joe Schmoe on October 22nd, 1982 is just as important to him and the world as the revelation of love to Rochester or the tragedy of the Invisible Man, and in the quest to tell a larger truth you can’t neglect smaller ones. Life is not made always in great, singing leaps after all, but often in tiny, trembling steps, and both are to be equally lauded if the heart behind them is right. By the same token small truths must often be used to lead us to great ones, like a child taking those first shaky steps or a baby first learning to eat. I hope someday my own work may whet those same appetites, even to lead others to feasts.
Now, I could talk about this for hours, but seeing as this post is getting lengthy and I still want to talk about a lighter subject, I’ll end here with a simple encouragement to ask questions or leave comments if you want to talk more. I am more than happy to do so. Thanks for reading this far. Can’t wait to see you (be read by you?) on the other side of the next subtitle!
1 O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” The Things They Carried. London: Flamingo, 1991. 83. Print.
I’ve started a giant project to cross-stitch Rick and Cog together with some lyrics from “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes, a song I often refer to somewhat jokingly as the Cog Song and regardless of any connection is fantastic. I’ve already learned a lot from this project about pattern making and cross-stitching in general, but I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that cross-stitching takes a long, long time. I started by hand-drawing the pattern as a sketch, and then uploaded it to pic 2 pat, a site where you can upload photos, tell them the size you want and the thread you want to use and then pick from generated patterns they supply, all for free, which is really nice. I made things a little hard on myself because when I scanned my image in, I ended up uploading it in black and white, which of course came back as gray-scale patterns which were really hard to tell apart when choosing. I ended up printing it off and then having to go back in and trace square by square which squares I actually wanted in black, ignoring the ones in lighter shades of gray and white. From there I decided to transcribe the whole pattern over to graph paper generated by PrintFreeGraphPaper.com because the indicator for a white stitch on the pic 2 pat pattern I’d chosen was a black square (because white was the most common color used and a black square the most prominent indicator, not because they’d intended to invert the image). Once all that was done some many hours later, I had to get the materials I needed, which were all fairly cheap and could be found at any craft store (the needle threader is pretty much indispensable in my opinion), find the exact center of my pattern and start from there in the middle of my fabric (to keep it centered), which was somewhat difficult because I’d ended up transcribing it over in such a way that the white around the edges was not even. Since then I’ve been working for probably an hour a day at least on it and have gotten as far as you can see below, which is the majority of Cog’s horns.
It’s only about four and a half inches tall right now, so yeah, still pretty small, but I was pretty ambitious in choosing a pattern that’s going to be about 20″ x 14″ when finished, so I only have myself to blame.
The really cool thing I wanted to point out about this though is how fascinating it is to do a slightly more 3D pattern of characters from my book. I draw OCs (original characters) a lot when I draw, but that’s just two dimensional and as cool as it is to see them come alive on the page, there’s still that barrier between us. This is a very different experience because for one thing the time it’s taking makes it all the more satisfying when I see the results and because when I’m done, I’ll have something that I can feel. If I run fingers over a drawing, the best I’ll do is feel paper and hopefully not smudge the pencil everywhere. With this, I can feel little bumps and textures, and even though I’m sure Cog’s horns don’t feel like embroidery floss, nor his fur or Rick’s shirt or skin or hair, it’s still cool to be able to trace the contours where the horns connect and know that I’ve been slowly molding and sculpting that. It has a certain craftsmanship about it that I adore and, though time consuming, it is super relaxing. Definitely a nice thing to do while watching a movie or resting to music.
Anyway, that’s all for now. Bye everyone! Thanks for reading!